Recent incidents in Minnesota courts and nationally suggest that norms for courtroom behavior are eroding, heightening the security risks facing judges, court personnel, and public visitors to the courthouse. What response is necessary, who pays, and how can we reconcile the need for personal safety with the public character of the courts?
To enter a county courthouse in Minnesota, you must:
AEmpty your pockets, walk through a permanent metal detector, and possibly take off your shoes and belt.
BAllow a security staffer to check for metal objects using a wand, depending on the kind of case being heard.
CWalk through the front door.
It’s a trick question: All depends on where the courthouse is. The state of courthouse security in Minnesota is governed by a patchwork of local funding and public policy decisions, leaving some courthouses with tight security, some with spotty security, and—several sources say—some with almost none at all.
In fact, according to James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, a brief survey of the approximately 100 courthouses in Minnesota’s 87 counties showed that while a majority have some kind of wand screening or temporary walk-through device, only about 20 have permanent point-of-entry screening.
A fatal shooting in the Hennepin County Courthouse in 2003 prompted tighter security in the downtown Minneapolis government center, but the issue took the spotlight again in December 2011, when a defendant critically wounded three people in the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais, which did not have a metal detector. Perhaps as unsettling as the incident itself was the location: in a quiet North Shore county of about 5,000, better known as an arts and recreation magnet than as a hotbed of gun violence.
Shortly afterward, Judge Lloyd Zimmerman, citing safety concerns, said he would not hear cases in Hennepin County’s three suburban courthouses because they did not have metal detectors.
Judge Zimmerman declined to comment for this article, but other judges have been willing to speak, including Mark Munger, who was the judge in the Grand Marais case.
“I was talking to the jury in the courtroom” after the verdict when the shooting took place, says Munger, who has spent 14 years on the bench. Yet the Grand Marais courthouse “actually has better security than the courthouse in Duluth. Duluth has no armed security officers, and no screening mechanisms unless it’s a high-profile case.”
Judge Sally Robertson is even more blunt: In the Wadena County Courthouse, “we are basically sitting ducks.”
An armed bailiff is posted in the courtroom on the main floor, and security cameras in the courthouse are monitored by dispatchers in the sheriff’s department downstairs. The facility also includes an emergency notification system—a “panic button.” A metal detector is available when needed, says county commissioner Ralph Miller, but Judge Robertson noted that it has very rarely been staffed or used.
Robertson further says the bailiff “isn’t in the courtroom all the time—he may be escorting prisoners, taking files in and out.” The doors into the courtroom are about 30 feet from the street, which means “there are no barriers. The courtroom doors are unprotected, because there’s no one in the foyer to stop anyone from coming in—there is just a sign on the courthouse doors that says ‘No Weapons Allowed.’”
Although security has been a longtime concern of hers, the incident in Grand Marais prompted Judge Robertson to write to the commissioners and sheriff urging immediate action. A committee of the Wadena County commissioners has been meeting with court personnel and the Sheriff’s Office to address these issues, says Robertson, who underscores that the board, law enforcement, and court personnel all take the issue seriously.
And it’s not just the judges at risk—it’s everyone in the courtroom. “The security isn’t just for court personnel as much [as it is] for the public—jurors, witnesses, everyone who works there,” says Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin of Ramsey County. And as the Grand Marais shooting proved, the risk is not limited to urban areas. “The potential for violence is there at all times,” says Susan Chambers, a family court referee in Blue Earth County, whether it’s a murder trial or a lower-profile but equally volatile situation involving family court. “I would love to see everything pass through a security/metal detector, but I’d say that most of our courthouses in Southern Minnesota don’t have that.”
Whatever the situation, “it’s a huge issue,” Munger declares. “And it all involves money. That’s the bottom line.”
While the state has funded court administration since 2005, each county is responsible for the actual courthouse building and its security, which includes: equipment, such as metal detectors; personnel, such as sheriff’s deputies to staff any kind of security checkpoint; and training for those personnel.
The costs all come out of the county’s general revenue, and “to make it even more finite, the sheriff’s department budget. They have to allocate the resources,” says Munger.
That can clearly be a problem for counties with multiple courthouses, but for small, rural counties with a limited tax base, even one courthouse can pose a problem.
In Wadena County, the county board discussed the issue of courthouse security a few years ago, but with the economy in free-fall at the time, the issue was put on hold, says Lane Waldahl, a Wadena County commissioner. “We’re trying to do what we can. I think that’s a concern not just for our county but other counties; even though it’s a state-run court system, the county has to kind of pick up the tab. If counties don’t have the money, it can be pretty hard.”
Wadena County had, in fact, put together a committee to look at the problem in late fall, before the Grand Marais shooting, says Waldahl. The committee, which hired an architect to look at security options for the 1970 courthouse, was slated to report back to the board in May.
Another limitation the county has to consider, says Miller, is whether changes to the building could trigger the Americans With Disabilities Act—requiring, for example, the addition of a handicap-accessible elevator to comply with the federal law. “That could very likely be more than a million dollars,” says Miller, a big chunk of money for a county with an $18.5 million budget and population of 13,000 and falling.
Even in the metro area, security measures vary widely. In downtown St. Paul, visitors must pass through a metal detector and empty their pockets to enter the St. Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse building, even if they’re just going in to pay a parking ticket.
In Hennepin County, visitors pass through a similar screening to access the courts in the government center in downtown Minneapolis, but the violations bureau in the same building is wide open, as is the conciliation court across the street in City Hall. Moreover, until recently the three suburban courthouses had no weapons screening, although that will change soon, following a decision by the Hennepin County Board.
According to a Hennepin County news release, interim weapons screening will be instituted as soon as possible at Brookdale and Ridgedale (including $280,000 in funding); temporary (wanding) weapons screening will be instituted at Southdale; and $345,000 in funding has been allocated for security positions and equipment costs at all three locations. The board is expected to review a security report, costing about $75,000, this spring, and has commissioned a study of permanent security solutions for all three locations, due to the board November 1. The permanent measures could include closing the Southdale courthouse, which would require about $900,000 to upgrade entrances, according to a news report by the Star Tribune. It could also mean moving conciliation court to the government center.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek says these interim measures are a good start, but he would like to see permanent weapons screening at all three suburban courthouses, and secured access points. Even the screening process in the government center could benefit from an upgrade, Stanek says. “The weapons screening is adequate, but I would have employees screened, and have Hennepin County deputies doing weapons screening.” Currently, Hennepin County security employees do the actual screening, with a sheriff’s deputy at a podium beyond the access point. The issue there, says Stanek, is the deputy cannot be proactive, but can only respond should anything erupt.
Stanek does not believe that money concerns should prevent the installation of reasonable security measures. He questions why there is a need to spend $75,000 to study the issue when there’s already a 2005 policy that requires weapons screening at the courthouse.
Security at What Price?
Besides finding the dollars, other issues come into play.
Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson believes perimeter security would be a good idea, but is quick to point out that it’s a complicated issue. Take the case of wanding: “You have a busy suburb, with defendants who are there with friends and kids in tow, and interested observers; you can have 400 or 500 go through the line. If they’re agitated when they enter, think how that agitation might mount if it takes 30 percent longer and they’re already late for court appearances and they know it.”
And while weapons screening is useful, he points out that in a courthouse shooting in Atlanta in 2005, an unarmed shooter overpowered and disarmed a deputy. “Perimeter security is designed to keep weapons out of a courthouse. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. You still have to have security inside a courthouse.”
Tighter security also has an effect on collegiality, sometimes even on how cases get settled, if not necessarily changing the outcome. Ruth Harvey, a Mankato attorney (who is not against “an ounce of prevention”) notes that in the 30 years she’s been practicing, a greater distance now separates the bench and lawyers. “When I first started practicing—for instance in Le Sueur County back in the day—everybody went into the coffee room, all the lawyers were scheduled for nine o’clock. It was like a cattle call, and whoever was opposing you was in the coffee room, too. The judge would wander through and ask ‘How’s it going?’ More cases got settled there.”
Now the relationship between attorneys and judges is more formalized, especially among the younger attorneys. That can be both for better and for worse, she observes, but the change is indisputable.
Others also question the current trend. District Court Judge Randall Slieter in the 8th Judicial District isn’t sure that tighter security is necessarily feasible or even desirable, at least for the 1902 Renville County Courthouse. “It’s adequate, relative to time, place, money, what we do, and relative to my empirical evidence. How do you regulate who comes and goes?” he asks. “Imagine someone helping their 80-year-old mother pay her property tax” and needing to have the both of them go through security screening; this is particularly significant for a rural county, he says, because unlike many urban settings, the rural county usually has most of its administrative functions concentrated in one building.
“Too often,” says Judge Slieter, “we react to the horrendous; you can’t make policy in a knee-jerk reaction to the horrendous. If money were unlimited, I’d have some suggestions, but with reality now, what is the level of concern vs. amount of money and inconvenience?”
Olmsted County Judge Joseph Chase makes similar points: “Recent events notwithstanding, we can’t turn courthouses into fortresses. Times change, of course. When I started practice as a young lawyer in our old courthouse, I could walk right into the chambers of our judges. (Well, not quite: Some [staffers] jealously guarded access to their judges.) Now my chambers are accessible only to those with an access card that opens a locked door. Conventional wisdom says that’s necessary and I’ll bow to the judgment of my many colleagues who agree with that. But we also need to recognize that the precautions we institutionally adopt in order to protect against the one-in-a-million crackpot carry a high cost, and I’m talking about more than just money. When county courthouses begin to look like bunkers (or airport departure gates), we say something—we concede something—ugly about our society. I’d be slow to make that concession. And I don’t like to give the impression that I’m afraid of the people I deal with, either.”
Both Munger and Robertson counter that tighter security is a service not only to judges and court employees, but to anyone in the courtroom. “When I’m sitting in the courthouse in Cook County and I just rendered a verdict in a crimsex conduct case, the people in the courtroom are voters,” says Munger. “They deserve protection, too. I don’t think we’re sacrificing anything. I walk over to the Federal Courthouse [in Duluth] to use the post office, and [the security is] not an inconvenience. It won’t diminish the public’s ability to participate in the judicial system.”
Is There a Solution?
Munger ventures that it may be time for the state court system to “bite the bullet and put [courthouse security] in the budget.” Waldahl and Miller of the Wadena County board voiced similar opinions. (And if the state is responsible for the furniture that goes into the courtroom and court administrator’s office, Miller raises this question: What exactly is furniture? Does a metal detector count?)
John Kostouros, communications director for the state courts administration, however, says that’s not the state’s mandate, nor what it’s set up to do. He supports the decentralized system. “There are so many different courthouses, some are old, some have multiple issues. It really needs to be dealt with as a local issue.”
Nonetheless, the court system has developed an informal partnership with the state sheriffs’ association working on courthouse security, Kostouros says, an effort that began last year but was spurred forward by the Grand Marais shooting. Everything is “still at a discussion stage,” he says, but “we know there’s a desire on the judicial branche’s part to do more there.”
The issue came up nationally in a bill cosponsored by U.S. Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, which would provide local courts with access to security training; give states authority to use existing grant money to improve courthouse security; and give local courts access to excess federal security equipment, such as metal detectors and screening devices. As of press time, the “Local Courthouse Safety Act” had been reported out of committee and was headed for the Senate floor.
At the State Capitol this session, Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill that would have allowed counties to charge a fee of up to $15 to help fund security measures, but the proposal was laid over in the Public Safety Committee.
Johnson worked in corrections, juvenile probation and the family court system in Ramsey County, where he saw firsthand the anger and frustration that can arise. He says it has been an issue he has long watched, but the Grand Marais shooting brought it to the fore. And he concedes that he viewed his bill as an interim measure, even if it had passed. “More key than anything is we need a uniform security approach for the judiciary, an approach that’s predictable, where people can feel safe, even perhaps more so than judges.” He thinks the state should take over this funding responsibility, but is not optimistic. (The Public Safety Committee chairman, Rep. Ron Shimanski, R-Silver Lake, could not be reached for comment.)
One effort to address the issue has emerged from the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, which began a statewide training program for sheriffs, deputies, and other courtroom personnel in April 2011. The program, using a risk-analysis approach, stresses communication among all parties—judges, social workers, family members, etc.—who might be involved in a particularly volatile case, heightened awareness of when a flashpoint can occur (at sentencing, for example), and an overall proactive approach. Thus far, the association has conducted the two-day training sessions in Alexandria, Duluth, Mankato, Bemidji, Stillwater, and Chaska and has sessions scheduled for Olmsted and Clay counties in the fall.
Retired Carver County Sheriff Bud Olson of the MSA says the program has already produced results. After the November training in Mankato, he says, a court administrator who had attended heard that a young man coming into juvenile court was going to bring a weapon into court with plans to use it. “She immediately alerted law enforcement and they increased court security of that young man,” says Olson, averting a potentially explosive situation.
Beyond the confines of the courthouse, the factors that can contribute to courthouse violence branch out into a wider network of issues: access to health care for people with mental illness, overloaded public defenders, shrinking funding for legal aid. These are larger than any single courthouse, or state, but regardless of the scope, says Sheldon Johnson, “It’s not an issue that’s going to go away.”
What accounts for the rise in courtroom violence? Blame Judge Judy.
Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson is the first to say—and repeatedly emphasize—that the problem is complex, nuanced, and stems from myriad sources. But he notes that the raft of so-called reality TV court programs like “Judge Judy” and its ilk have contributed to the problem.
“When I started in 1995, the percentage of cases that had self-represented litigants was negligible,” he says. “That meant that I had lawyers who were pretty good at defusing litigants’ anger. That made everyone better protected, and the self-represented litigants were much more respectful. The advent of court shows, where they get great ratings because litigants are screaming at each other, and the court is not enforcing civil discourse”—or worse, is playing to the camera—has led educated people to think this is what courts are like. That, coupled with less access to legal aid, means not only is it harder for people to afford a lawyer, but they see little reason to pay for professional legal services.
Judy Arginteanu is a freelance journalist. She previously covered Minnesota courts for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.